Tessa Hadley: 'I cried on my way to school every day'

She was a 'hopeless' young teacher. But why did it take the writer another 23 years to hit her stride as a novelist?

Tessa Hadley is that rarest of novelists – one who seems happy to discuss both her life and work with equal candour. "I like chatting about my books. Other people's more – but mine too," she says cheerfully when we meet on the top floor of a Waterstones in London. "I know it's cooler to hold something back. J M Coetzee is a wonderfully fluent critic but sees his books as coming from a different place. No talk can replicate that place. One is not an authority on one's books. You are hoping that what you say is true."

Hadley's unerring eye for what is true – in everyday human behaviour, thought, and relationships – has won her a host of admirers including Anne Enright, Peter Parker and The New Yorker, which has published excerpts from Hadley's new novel, Clever Girl, over the past few years. Set almost exclusively in Bristol during the second half of the 20th century, it is an intimate, engrossing and eminently English coming of middle-age story from one of Britain's finest writers. Her heroine, Stella, undergoes many trials – murders, affairs, having one child in her teens, another in a socialist commune – in her heroic and romantic pursuit of self-realisation.

The narrative is episodic and deeply personal, but slowly coalesces to form a mosaic of British life over the past 50 years. "The book tracks an extraordinary few decades in which things that had enormous power in the Fifties, such as class, were unpicked in the Sixties and Seventies," Hadley says. "Young people were standing nowhere as the parameters around them changed. It must have felt as if they were making up their own fate in ways their parents did not. The giddy freedom of the Sixties was both liberating and terrifying."

It's hard not to draw parallels between Stella and her creator. Both read avidly as teenagers, both entertained literary aspirations which were derailed by circumstance: namely, marriage, preg- nancy and family. Hadley acknowledges the congruencies between fact and fiction only to swat them away. "It is not very autobiographical except that, deliberately, Stella is born in the same city and the same year as me. But she absolutely doesn't have my life. She is much braver than I am, much more audacious."

Hadley's background was certainly more secure and nurturing than Stella's. Her father was a teacher who played jazz; her mother was a housewife who painted. Nevertheless, the family can boast of some serious literary form: Hadley's paternal uncle is Peter Nichols, whose A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and Passion Play have both been successfully revived in the West End this year. "He came from nowhere, Pete. It is admirable and extraordinary. He was kicked out of Bristol Grammar School for being idle. They later put him on the honour's board in gold leaf."

This finds an echo in Stella's own adolescent situation, in which her cleverness separates her from her parents' world. Her aspirations are unexpectedly scuppered by what Hadley describes to me as "biology advancing like a great juggernaut". Sex isn't the issue, she insists. "It's simpler and more dreadfully fundamental: it's becoming pregnant. It knocks Stella off course. That on the whole doesn't happen to boys. They become fathers, but it's not such a drama happening inside one body. This new life inside you, which will demand of you if you choose to keep it. Your cleverness isn't much use. You need to be loving, and good and dutiful."

This is a more intense recasting of Hadley's own experience. A bookish teenager, she did not share Stella's taste for avant-garde writers such as Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs: "I do think it is a gender thing. I intuited that writers like Beckett and Burroughs were not keen on that terrible old phrase – the pram in the hall. When I was a teenager, I was reading about how to live. I couldn't fit my sloppy, messy, hopeful, female side into that austere, male framework."

A real pram in the hall would appear soon enough. First, Hadley read English at Cambridge. "Unhappily. I loved the books but didn't feel at home there. I thought it was a chilly, funny, odd place." Then she entertained an idealistic ambition to be a teacher. "It was a complete disaster. I was 23. I went to a rough comprehensive. I was political: I wanted to bring light where there was darkness. All that rubbish. I was hopeless. The kids ran rings around me. I cried on my way to school every morning."

This unhappy experience goes some way to explaining Hadley's early loss of confidence as a novelist. Although she was trying to write fiction, it would take another lifetime (23 years) before her first book, Accidents in the Home, was published in 2002. "It took me a long time to come into my own authority. It can be very circuitous to find your way to what's plain, what's natural to you, the best forms for your mind."

Her misadventures in teaching had another, equally profound consequence. They convinced Hadley to start a family: she has three sons, and three step-sons. Becoming pregnant "is a hugely equivocal moment for women", she says. "Once it's done it becomes formative. Most mothers would not dream of going back. But how enormous a moment that is. The sheer shock, when after a couple of days of being good and devoted and self-sacrificing to this little creature, you think 'Now it's my turn.' Then you think 'Not for another 18 years, actually'. I am not complaining. It's deepening." She pauses. "However bad it was in moments, having a baby was always better than teaching."

In this, Hadley's story does echo that of her fictional heroine: both found their voices, their identities as individuals, wives, mothers and working women, through literature. For Stella, it was reading. For Hadley, it was writing. Yet both come to the same moral of their story.

"The things that aren't under your control are the most interesting," Hadley says. "Stella says it herself. It isn't what goes on in your inward life that is most important. It is what you do with what befalls you. We can't pre-empt this. In the end, when you look back, those substantial accidents are the test, much more than what you have schemed."

Clever Girl, By Tessa Hadley

Jonathan Cape £16.99

'Why must the world of real things always be relegated to second place, as if it was a lesser order, as if everything abstract was higher and more meaningful?'

Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention